Whenever a Democrat starts talking about gun regulation, thereâ€™s a (not unreasonable) temptation to ask, â€śWhatâ€™s the point?â€ť We all know that as long as the GOP controls Congress, not even the most modest measures to limit gun violence have a hope of passing. If a measure that has the support of 90 percent of the public - universal background checks - canâ€™t pass in the wake of 20 elementary school children being slaughtered, what hope is there for any new gun law?
That was my first question when I interviewed Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., this morning. His answer: We need to lay the groundwork right now for change in the long term.
Murphy is about to introduce a new universal background check measure, one that with a few narrow exceptions would require anyone buying a gun - whether online, at a gun show, from a neighbor, or in any other way - to pass a criminal background check.
Is it going to pass in this Congress? No. But Murphy, who has become the most prominent advocate of new gun regulations in Congress, turns out to be extremely practical about crafting a legislative strategy to reduce gun violence that may take years to produce results.
â€śIâ€™m not naĂŻve about our chances to pass this bill in this Congress,â€ť Murphy says, â€śbut itâ€™s important to have this as a fulcrum point for the movement.â€ť He wants to put pressure on Republicans, but also sees it as important for Democrats running for office to have a piece of legislation they can say theyâ€™re ready to pass if they win: â€śWe wouldnâ€™t be able to run on this issue if we didnâ€™t have a bill.â€ť
Thatâ€™s why it may be more important right now for Democrats to renew their focus on background checks than it is to, say, try to regulate something like bump stocks, which were used in the Las Vegas massacre to kill so many. Even if most people think you shouldnâ€™t be able to modify your semi-automatic to make it operate like a fully automatic machine gun, support for universal background checks is essentially, well, universal. Polls consistently show over 90 percent of the public supporting the idea, which includes overwhelming majorities of Republicans and gun owners. As Murphy put it when I asked him about the conversations he has with people who donâ€™t agree with him on gun legislation: â€śI donâ€™t actually talk to anybody whoâ€™s against background checks other than U.S. senators.â€ť
He also believes that background checks arenâ€™t just popular but would actually work to reduce gun violence. When I asked what legislation he would pass if there were no political impediments, he said, â€śThe data clearly shows that background checks and locally issued gun permits are the two most effective interventions.â€ť He then explained how his effort fits into a broader political picture, one that includes the places where legislation can actually pass:
â€śFrom now through 2020, itâ€™s most likely that background checks are going to be expanded because states pass referendums mandating universal background checks. By continuing to push this conversation at a national level, we are helping states and state anti-gun-violence movements who want to push background check referendums to the ballot. Yes, itâ€™s unlikely that this bill passes between now and 2018. But I betcha a few more states will have referendums on the ballot in 2018 to create a universal background check system, and by having this debate at the federal level we facilitate this debate going out into the states.â€ť
That wonâ€™t mean Congress will change. When I asked him about how his Republican colleagues think about this issue, he said: â€śHalf of Republicans are true gun control Darwinists: they really do believe that if you flood the country with guns, eventually the good guys will shoot the bad guys. And then half of them know that background checks are the right thing, but they just think itâ€™s too big a cost to try to cross the gun lobby, especially when theyâ€™re mostly worried about a Republican primary.â€ť
There may not be much to do about that in the short run; as weâ€™ve seen, Republicans will stand against even measures supported by virtually all of their constituents if thatâ€™s what the gun lobby wants them to do. But a comprehensive strategy that combines the ability of federal efforts to shape the debate with state efforts to put measures on the ballot may actually produce steady incremental gains in bringing a bit of sanity to our gun laws.
Of course, at the same time, conservative state legislatures are passing all the pro-gun laws they can; theyâ€™ve practically run out of places to say itâ€™s legal to take your gun. I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see a Republican state legislator propose that we arm toddlers and legalize celebratory gunfire whenever the local high school football team gets a touchdown. And there could be another national debate soon, since the NRA is pushing for Congress to pass â€śconcealed-carry reciprocity,â€ť meaning that if you got a concealed carry license in one state, every other state would have to let you bring in your gun, no matter what their own laws say.
In any case, Murphy is one of the few Democrats advocating for an aggressive, offensive strategy on guns, one that sees the conflict playing out not just in this Congress or next year but over decades. Itâ€™s a difficult project, but if theyâ€™re going to have any hope of progress, thatâ€™s the approach theyâ€™ll have to take.
Waldman is a senior writer at The American Prospect